Emma Gregg picks her favourite experiences in this vibrant metropolis, from its better-known attractions to its city secrets
Best way to arrive: The Blue Train
urely the most glamorous way to arrive in Cape Town is by sea on board a luxury liner? In a couple of years, this may well be the case. From December 2017, a shiny new cruise ship terminal at the V&A Waterfront will transform the experience. But for now, it’s far more exciting to arrive by land, taking the Blue Train from Pretoria, a journey which recreates the true elegance of 20th-century luxury travel.
Over the 994-mile, 27-hour trip, you’ll be treated like a guest of honour by the butlers, stewards and cooks, many of whom have been on the staff all their working lives. Every meal is served in a dining car with white table linen and ever-changing views. Your cabin, though compact, will have all the comforts of a hotel room, and at night the rhythms
of the train will rock you to sleep.
With standard fares costing an eye-watering 25 times more than a flight with budget airline Kulula, we can’t pretend this is a cheap way to travel — but as a unique experience, it’s priceless.
• Don’t miss: The beautiful views as the train sails through the Winelands.
• Learn more: The Blue Train (bluetrain.co.za)
Best panoramic views: Table Mountain
The weather on Cape Town’s iconic mountain is notoriously changeable, so if conditions are good when you arrive, head straight for the Table Mountain Cableway. From the summit, you can see right across the city to Robben Island and the Cape Flats, along the coast to Clifton and down to Camps Bay. Alternatively, try one of the new Scootours, where you can take in the vistas from a scooter.
• Don’t miss: The wildlife. Cuddly-looking hyrax are plentiful on the plateau.
• Learn more: Table Mountain Cableway (tablemountain.net); Scootours (scootours.co.za)
Best history tours: Robben Island and Footsteps to Freedom
Robben Island is, quite rightly, a major visitor attraction. But while it’s certainly moving to be guided around by former inmates, some find the experience rather rushed and one-dimensional. To fill out your understanding of Cape Town’s complex history, add a Footsteps to Freedom city walking tour to your itinerary. You’ll hear about the settlement’s growth from a provisioner of European ships to a busy industrial port, and learn more about Nelson Mandela’s time here as prisoner and politician. While strolling along Adderley Street, past St George’s Cathedral and through the Company’s Garden, you’ll also discover how walkable central Cape Town can be.
• Don’t miss: Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. If you can, slip away from your tour group for a few moments to experience it in solitude.
• Learn more: Robben Island (robben-island.org.za); Footsteps to Freedom (footstepstofreedom.co.za)
Best secret city tours: Ethnic cooking, urban foraging and street art
With terraced houses painted in ridiculously jaunty colours, Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap quarter has immediate appeal. A great way to learn about the community living behind those dazzling doors is to book a Cape Malay Cooking Safari with tour company Andulela. They’ll have you stirring spices and folding samosas while swapping stories like old friends.
For an even more offbeat experience, set out with urban forager Charles Standing. He knows exactly where to find Cape Town’s hidden bounty, from ripe chestnuts and fungi to mineral-rich seaweed. Your tour will end in the kitchen at Camissa Brasserie, the fine-dining restaurant at The Table Bay hotel. Its chefs will whip up something unique from the contents of your basket.
Over in the edgy Woodstock district, you can tap into the urban art scene with Juma Mkwela, a street-art expert who’s worked on a number of community development projects and is on first name terms with Cape Town’s leading artists. He’ll show you all the best murals in this vibrant, fast-evolving part of town.
• Don’t miss: Inhaling the scent of spices at Atlas Trading Company in Bo-Kaap and filling your water bottle at Newlands Spring.
• Learn more: Andulela (andulela.com); Table Bay Hotel (suninternational.com/table-bay); Juma Art Tours (facebook.com/jumatoursmurals)
Best cutting-edge cuisine: The Test Kitchen, The Pot Luck Club, and [spasie]
Cape Town is having a culinary moment. This is a city that celebrates every trend going, from burrito trucks and township braais to gorgeous farm-to-fork wineland eateries.
British-born Luke Dale-Roberts is one of the many creative spirits at work. His multi-award-winning restaurants The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club have put Woodstock on the map. Cool Capetonians who might never have ventured into this part of town before Dale-Roberts arrived now roll up in cars booked through Uber.
Once inside, they feast on highly imaginative Latin, African and tapas-influenced dishes, such as immaculately presented smoked lamb loin or ash-baked celeriac.
More recently, adventurous foodies have been flocking to the Chef’s Table at [spasie], a new Thursday and Friday evening dining experience. Occupying a grungy former storage space in Bo-Kaap, this long-table, open-kitchen gourmet dining room calls itself an “underground restaurant and culinary playground”. While it’s not quite as subversive as that sounds, it certainly breaks the mould. Each week, it invites a different leading chef to take the reins. They rustle up a set menu that’s never been seen before and guide diners through it, course by course.
• Don’t miss: Sunday brunch at The Pot Luck Club, a riot of delicate flavours.
• Learn more: The Test Kitchen (thetestkitchen.co.za); The Pot Luck Club (thepotluckclub.co.za), [spasie] (spasie.co)
Best contemporary art: Zeitz MOCAA
The biggest change taking place at the V&A Waterfront is the redevelopment of the Grain Silo. Saved from dereliction and remodelled by Thomas Heatherwick, creator of London’s Olympic Cauldron and Garden Bridge, this 1920s storage facility will soon house the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa). Set to showcase art from all over Africa, the museum will be a compelling addition to the city’s diverse cultural scene.
Elsewhere in the city, new independent art venues are popping up. On the first Thursday evening of the month, artists, dealers and enthusiasts convene for the First Thursdays art trail. This free gallery-hopping event features dozens of places — some refined, others eccentric and unpredictable.
• Don’t miss: The new outpost of Jo’burg’s celebrated Gallery MOMO at 170 Buitengracht Street, Bo-Kaap.
• Learn more: Zeitz MOCAA (twitter.com/zeitzMOCAA); First Thursdays (first-thursdays.co.za)
Best souvenir shopping: Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
The V&A Waterfront hasn’t always been fashionable, but recent improvements have transformed it into an upbeat and eco-friendly place to stay, eat and shop. In pride of place is the Watershed, a former warehouse that was upcycled into a craft complex during Cape Town’s year as World Design Capital in 2014. Its stalls are crammed with original ideas, from wood-framed sunglasses to sculptures made from recycled flip-flops. The Waterfront also offers both mainstream and luxury mall shopping, with Victoria Wharf housing big brands galore.
• Don’t miss: Refuelling on street food at the V&A Waterfront Food Market.
• Learn more: V&A Waterfront (waterfront.co.za)
Best place to chill out: Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden
There’s always been a serene beauty to Cape Town’s famous park, along the foot of Table Mountain. The Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway (above), better known as ‘the Boomslang’, adds a lovely new dimension. After leading you through the treetops, its views open out, revealing a glorious swathe of fynbos-clad mountain scenery. During the summer months, you can watch a movie under the stars at The Galileo Open Air Cinema or relax at a Sunset Concert.
• Don’t miss: The birds. They’re abundant, with owls often roosting in the trees around ‘the Boomslang’.
• Learn more: Kirstenbosch (sanbi.org/gardens/kirstenbosch)
Best local night out: Theatre and comedy
The new place for comedy is The Rockwell, a modern hotel in the perennially hip Waterkant district. Locals come here to lap up the banter in its theatre, which has
a cabaret-club vibe. Township entertainment can be harder to unearth, particularly if you’re an outsider, but grassroots tour specialist Coffeebeans Routes now offers a way in. Simply sign up for their Theatre in the Backyard or Township Choral Music experience to enjoy a vibrant show, followed by dinner and a chat with the actors, singers and directors.
• Learn more: The Theatre @ the Rockwell (rockwellhotel.co.za/theatre); Coffeebeans Routes (coffeebeansroutes.com)
Carrie’s Cape Town
Our local correspondent reveals her insider tips
Arts and culture
Walk the length of Company’s Garden – It has Cape Town’s most important museums and institutions around its perimeter. Most people don’t realise that you can park within the gardens at the entrance to the South African Museum, and your museum ticket also gives you entry to the South African National Art Gallery.
Shop and party at the same time
For the very best Cape arts, crafts and local designer clothes, go to the V&A Waterfront’s Watershed on the last Wednesday of each month and join the party atmosphere in the Good Night Market, with live music, food trucks and art exhibitions.
Lunch with the locals
The length of Bree Street has become liberally scattered with owner-dedicated bars and cafes, such as award-winning Chefs Warehouse & Canteen, Sababa’s spread of Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, Culture Club Cheese, Italian-inspired Bocca and brilliant burgers at Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room. Go before the lunchtime rush, then trot back to work afterwards… Oh, no need, you’re on holiday!
Top 5 beer houses
Craft beer is big in Cape Town, too, so here are the best spots to drink some local brews:
1 Beerhouse on Long Street, CBD
2 The Dogs Bollocks, Gardens
3 Garagista, Woodstock
4 Devil’s Peak Brewing Company’s The Taproom, Salt River
5 Banana Jam Cafe, Kenilworth
• Getting there South African Airways flies from London to Cape Town with a stopover in Jo’burg. You can book plenty of affordable internal flights through Kulula. Arriving by the Blue Train is unique and memorable. Alternatively, drive along the Route 62 from George, stopping at quaint towns such as Oudtshoorn en route.
• Where to stay Cape Grace, Dock House Boutique Hotel & Spa, Victoria & Alfred Hotel, Queen Victoria Hotel and The Table Bay are all recommended.
• When to go The best time to go is in the South African summer (between October and April).